A big hearty hello from Team Croc, sitting along the banks of the beautiful Mekong River inside a wet and still very Communist Laos. Steeped in socialist traditions yet rapidly embracing the joys of globalization, this small land-locked country of only 7m people in South East Asia has been late to the table of modernization. Government structures, historic buildings and infrastructure lay decrepit while new shops, houses and capitalist services are just now beginning to emerge. Cities across the country are experiencing a construction boom as new wealth is created, fueled by demand from China and elsewhere for timber and mineral resources.
Team Croc stepped into this exciting and often incongruous Laotian march into the future twelve days ago to do its small part of helping the country not completely eviscerating its natural past. A small piece of swampy wetlands in the central province of Savannakhet is home to the last few dozen of Siamese Crocodiles in the country. An extremely rare species of freshwater crocodiles, there are now only 200 individuals left in the wild globally. Our client, the Wildlife Conservation Society, has partnered with local villagers and government authorities to establish a protection zone to safeguard the remaining crocs. Our contribution is to develop an ecotourism product to generate revenue for the conservation and breeding program of young crocs as well as for the local village community to ensure local buy-in.
For the last one and a half weeks, we have been hauling through the length of the country to sample similar tourism products and conduct dozens of interviews with various stakeholder groups. Our first destination fresh off a small propeller plane was Luang Prabang, the major tourism hotspot in the north of the country. The city proper is a Unesco World Heritage Site, famed for its intriguing architectural mixture of old Buddhist temples, traditional houses and charming French colonial buildings in the city center. It is also the jump-off point for the Nam Nern Night Safari, an ecotourism product designed by a 2009 Haas IBD team. Three years later, the product is up and running –the US Ambassador to Laos was even a recent visitor! After experiencing the Night Safari ourselves, we were left in awe of the previous Haas team – we certainly have big shoes to fill! Starting off at a village an eight hour drive north-east of Luang Prabang, the Safari takes visitors on shallow wooden long-boats upstream into the Nam Et Phou Louey National Park, a far-flung, hilly jungle where elephants and tigers still roam in the wild. The boats stop at a camp by the riverside, complete with wooden, straw-thatched huts, a communal hall and washing facilities for an unforgettable overnight stay in the midst of pristine wilderness. Doing this trip was invaluable for our own work: we obtained numerous insights into project costs, logistical and operational solutions as well as remuneration methods and incentive structures for the local community. Just as important was the significance of the project itself: seeing what was on the ground brought home to us the powerful impact an IBD project can have. Three years ago there were no huts, no village funds and locals would go to the protected areas to hunt endangered species. Now, the product is featured in Lonely Planet, tourists provide a revenue stream that finance community improvements like a village medicine cabinet, school supplies, and equipment for the village communal hall. Most importantly, the local community now values the local wildlife and ecology, stating themselves that the purpose of the project is to “protect the Tiger and other local animals,” rather than to increase their own income.
After the Nam Ern trip we ventured further across the country, stopping at sites along the backpacker trail in Phonsavant and Vang Vien, the capital Vientiane, where we stopped by the zoo to learn about the Siamese Crocodile and play with some baby crocs, and finally down to Savannakhet at the banks of the Mekong river, where we are currently based. Throughout, we conducted numerous interviews with tour operators, government tourist officials, travel agents, and tourists themselves to refine our understanding of market dynamics, customer segments and volumes, cost structures and product requirements. Tomorrow, we venture to Tansoum, the village where our project will be based, where we will interview villagers and experience some traditional ceremonies as well as some locally produced Lao Lao, the traditional moonshine of Laos. We will then pilot the product we are designing by paddling out in the wetland where the approximately 3 meter-long Siamese Crocodiles live and spending a night in hammocks on the island where we want to build a camp for tourists. We hope to see the wild crocs ourselves, but hopefully not from too close! Wish us luck.
– Beer Lao counter: 70/100
– Lost Limb counter: 0/16
– Mozzie bites: 58
– Rushed trips to the bathroom: 67
– Emergency jungle poops that interrupts boat tour: 2
– Cricket consumed: 22
– Pieces of udder consumed: 12